Cameron tried their hardest not to cough in front of the girl. The chase had left them exhausted. To keep her from noticing and to stop her from crying, they’d given her one of their necklaces to wear. Parting from personal gemmes always stung, but they’d worked their wonderful magic yet again. She’d stop crying. She was smiling.
Sitting up slowly so their vision didn’t blot out, Cameron took Avery’s hand and led her away from the Lake. They’d never entered the Lake den without first being given an errand to run. They weren’t a water cleanser or toilet cleaner. They knew their way around sure enough, but they couldn’t help but trace the lines making up their kaart, wondering when they’d walk this path again.
Avery pointed to the scars.
“My kaart,” they explained. They wanted to go on in detail about this important part of themselves—literally—but they held back. She wouldn’t understand. The kaart was carved into each Arkeh:nen’s arm at thirteen so they never got lost. Families would celebrate the milestone with fresh meat and new candles. After a disastrous cave-in at twelve years old, Cameron had earned theirs a year earlier than most. Not many neighbors celebrated it, however they, Basil, Maywood, and their Moeder shared a squirrel together.
Not knowing how to explain that to her, Cameron just said, “It helps us get around so we don’t get lost.”
They left the Lake quickly. This, they wouldn’t get in trouble for, but the Grandmoeders’ Den? A shiver crawled up their neck. Avery, an outsider, had barged into their Den without permission. Seeing them unannounced like that would brandish you with shame for the rest of your life. Hopefully the Grandmoeders would be lenient with her misdoing. If they weren’t, they’d gladly take the punishment for her. It was their fault, after all.
Like they thought, a crowd had begun to form around the tunnle entrance. The Community held up firebug lanterns and glowing gemmes to get a better look at the newcomer. Whenever someone got too close, Avery ducked away.
“She’s scared,” Cameron told them. “Please don’t do that.”
“Where’d you find her?”
“Did you bring her down yourself?”
“Do the Grandmoeders know?”
“Did a psychic predict this?”
Not wanting to stir up any rumors, Cameron nudged themselves out of the crowd and headed home. Multiple pairs of eyes lingered on them from the higher levels. They made haste and slipped down the ladders.
One woman trotted over not with questions but with a jar of her famous honey wrapped in a blade of river grass. Her name was Claire. She used to be Cameron’s teacher before they graduated to become an excavator.
“Here,” she said, handing it to Cameron. “My lover collected this yesterday and had it purified by the psychics. It should help calm things down.”
“Are you sure?” Cameron asked, noting how heavy the bottle felt.
“Yes, but be quick.” She eyed the upper levels. Two children hid themselves. “The energy’s tense here. People are whispering. Best to use this in a secluded spot and drink it slow and meaningfully.”
“I will. Thank you.”
She gave an acknowledging nod to Avery before running her hand through Cameron’s poofy hair. “Take care, dear. This might be challenging for you, but you can overcome it.”
“Thank you,” they said, and ran down the nearest rock staircase. The steep steps took Avery by surprise—she grabbed hold of their shoulders to keep from falling—but Cameron supported her and escaped to the lowest level of Arkeh:na.
The dens down here had been built less than thirty years ago by their brave ancestors. They were by far the newest additions to Arkeh:na, but Cameron knew their ancestors had wanted to dig even deeper.
Cameron was a sixth generation Arkeh:nen and prided themselves on keeping up their heritage. Everything their ancestors had given up weighed down on their every move. This meant taking care of everyone who needed help.
They loved their Community. They loved it so much that, when they were taught their history, they discovered a pronoun some people went by: “they.” At first, they thought this meant the person’s actions were tied to the Community. “They” were “the Community.” Intrigued, they researched into it, then found out what it really meant. It was for a person who didn’t feel like a “boy” or “girl.” It separated them from the pretty girls in their class and the rowdy boys who played in the mud. It gave them an option they never knew was there.
That week, they proudly announced to their class to call them a “they” instead of their old pronoun.
Each den had decorative drapery acting as their door. Some had animal pelts, sewn-together furs of squirrels and rabbits. Some, like Cameron’s den, had an antique blanket a Grandmoeder had sewn for them. Whenever Cameron passed by their door, they rubbed the soft, ancient fabric, feeling the energy their own birth Grandmoeder had put into it.
They basically had their den to themselves. Their Fader had disappeared when they were six and their Moeder barely left the psychics’ dens. With the extra room, they’d filled their 100-square-foot space with curios: torn pieces of fabric from their old baby clothes; drying lavender tied to the walls; pieces of glass that almost looked like gemmes.
None of them compared to their actual collection of gemmes, gemstones they’d personally dug out from the Earth. They were kept in special boxes or, if they were tall enough, stood upright against the walls. Over the course of their life, Cameron had excavated around 2,000 gemmes, but had only kept around 200. The rest became gifts for the Community.
They escorted Avery inside of their bed, a long hole cut into the floor. With her size, she could’ve easily rested her chin on the edge, but she didn’t. She instead pulled herself into a ball and sat quietly in the corner next to their gemme shelves.
Cameron smirked at her. So tall, yet so conscious of her space.
They offered her the jar of honey. “You can eat this to calm down.” They pretended to drink down the bottle. “Eat. It’s good.”
“Eaten?” She tipped back her head to taste it.
She dropped the bottle and pointed above her in horror.
Cameron’s bat, Nuvu, was hanging upside down on her metal mesh. When Basil was still a scavenger, he’d scavenged the piece from a junkyard and hammered it into the wall for them. She’d made her nest in the corner, and claimed Cameron’s whole den as hers.
“That’s my bat,” Cameron explained. “Nuvu.”
“Yeah. She kind of hates people. I’m not even sure she likes me.” They climbed into bed with her. Their bear pelt kept them from skinning their knees. “Do Autreans know what bats are? Have you ever seen one? They only live in caves and only like Arkeh:nen.”
Avery shrugged and lapped the hardened honey circling the top of the jar. It reminded Cameron of how Nuvu ate honey, but with her reddened eyes and scratched face, she looked less likely to bite one of Cameron’s fingers.
She caught their eyes and asked them a question.
“I want to learn more about you,” they blurted out. “We’re not allowed to talk to Autreans if we ever see one in the wild, but I’ve never seen one before. Well, Basil’s half-Autrean, but he was born and raised here.”
Avery pulled something out of her pocket. Before Cameron could ask, that bright light blinded them yet again.
“Sorry!” She lowered the brightness, but Cameron still needed to squint to see. Basil always told them stories about these devices. Autreans called them “fones.”
Avery tapped something on her fone and showed it to them.
Even though it hurt, Cameron moved up closer to see the moving picture. It was of a blue and green orb surrounded by blackness. White clouds stretched around it as it spun like a ball.
“Cool,” they awed. “What is it?”
She clicked her fone and a new picture popped up, one of green trees and mossy logs: her world. The Autre world.
Biting their lower lip, Cameron took the fone and scrolled for themselves. They weren’t allowed to enter the Autre world, but could they see pictures of it? They hoped so, because they’d never, ever felt so much intrigue by something outside of Arkeh:na. The endless rivers not cut off by rock, the flowers growing with help from the Sun. How far did the sky stretch? How tall did the trees grow? Arkeh:na had its tight-knit charm, but this was world-altering.
As they frantically searched for more pictures, Cameron stumbled across a picture not blessed by earthly qualities, but by graphite.
They had an understanding of the Autrean written word. Having neither the tree supply nor light for it, Arkeh:nen hardly ever wrote, but from time to time, scavengers would sneak back papers for the Community to see. They always gathered a crowd whenever a picture book came down.
But in these photos, it seemed like someone had taken pictures of drawings. The sketchy people had been drawn with exaggerated features, particularly in the eyes and hair. They all looked sad for some reason, but also beautiful.
Avery yanked back her fone and hid away the pictures.
“Did you draw those?” Cameron asked. “Avery, you?”
“Yes, me.” She filtered through the pictures more quickly, as if too shy to show off her own work.
“Can you teach me how to draw?” they insisted. “Can you draw me? No Arkeh:nen is good at drawing, and these are really good.”
Avery beamed red. She blushed so easily that Cameron couldn’t stop themselves from feeding her more praise.
Someone pushed back their doorway blanket.
Maywood peeked her head in and greeted them with a smile and friendly wave. Basil, arms crossed, stood beside her.
“Hello there,” Maywood said to Avery. “It’s nice to see you again. My, she probably doesn’t understand a word I’m saying, does she?”
“I don’t think so,” Cameron said.
“I told you,” Basil said. “No Autrean understands our language. Only the Grandmoeders know their words. And why is she in your bed? Get her out of there.”
“No. She’s still hurt.”
“So bring her to a psychic. Find a healer. Your neighbor’s good at healing, isn’t she?”
Cameron fiddled with a gemstone on their necklace. In truth, they were acquainting Avery to their world. In actuality, they were scared. Terrified. Keeping her here made her happy, but also kept them in the clear. Once their Moeder found out…
Maywood squatted beside Cameron’s bed and balanced her cane on her lap. “My name is Maywood. May-wood. I work with the silkworms. And this’s my brother, Basil. We’re good friends of Cameron.”
Basil curled his upper lip in a pout. “She won’t understand.”
“Maywood.” Avery pointed to said girl, then to Basil. “Basil?”
Basil’s nostrils flared. “Well, that’s easy. They’re names. Her accent’s still off.”
“I’ve heard your Autrean isn’t that good, either,” Maywood said with a sneer, “yet you still practice it in our den. She’ll learn it in time.”
“No, she won’t. She’s not staying. She has to leave.”
That voice, so deep and willful, seeded Cameron back into reality. They hardly heard it anymore, but that steady tone would’ve brought anyone fooling around back to attention.
Cameron’s Moeder, one of the most paramount psychics in all of Arkeh:na, stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips, glaring down at Cameron and Avery.
“I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone this morning,” she said. “Bring her here, then. I’ll deal with her myself.”